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Saving Oz: It’s a big job, and this film just doesn’t pull it off

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A scene from the animated film “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.”

A scene from the animated film “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.”

“Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is a harmless but almost charmless adaptation of a book by L. Frank Baum’s grandson. It’s a derivative hash of grandpa’s story, set in the present day, given forgettable new tunes by pop songsmiths such as Bryan Adams that are sung by the likes of Lea Michele, Martin Short, Hugh Dancy and the operatic Megan Hilty of TV’s “Smash.”

And it’s in 3-D, of course.

This work, animated at Prana in India, has decent production design – a dark, abandoned Emerald City, a shiny, porcelain sheen in Oz’s “Dainty China Country” and luscious-looking 3-D sweets in Candy County.

And the animated characters are beautifully rendered, even if their faces don’t have the expression and plasticity that Pixar, Blue Sky, Disney and Sony have managed in their recent films.

Dorothy (Michele), Toto, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry survive a tornado that trashes their corner of Kansas. An unscrupulous real estate hustler (Martin Short) is ready to buy out the whole shattered town. But before Dorothy can stop this foreclosure fraud, a rainbow snatches her and drags her back to Oz – her and her little dog, too.

Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd) has smartly summoned her to save the land, which is under the thumb of The Jester (Short, again), the evil brother of the Wicked Witch of the West. And brother carries a grudge.

Dorothy teams up with Wiser, a chatterbox owl (Oliver Platt); a candy soldier, Marshal Mallow (Dancy); and the haughty China Princess (Hilty) and sets off down the ruined Yellow Brick Road to save her old friends.

The returning characters – the emotionally mercurial Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer, not bad), gutsy Lion (Jim Belushi) and trilling Glinda, the Good Witch (Bernadette Peters, perfectly cast) – have almost nothing to do. They’re just puppets of The Jester.

“No good can come from the reign of a fool,” Glinda trills, one last act of defiance before Jester sics his flying monkeys on the legendary witch-killer from Kansas.

The singing is competent, and rocker Adams’ contribution, a build-a-boat-with-beavers tune, “Let’s Work,” bounces along. “When the World” is Michele’s “Over the Rainbow” moment. But not one song will stick with you past the closing credits.

With unknown animation entities, the rule is that the more impressive the voice cast, the weaker the script. Hire great Brits Patrick Stewart (as a boat), Brian Blessed and Dancy (who croons a tune or two) and maybe you can cover up the startling lack of humor on the page. Except it never does.

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